A hot potato: Swatting has been a serious problem for years, resulting in unnecessary panic, wasted law enforcement resources, and at least two deaths. As a rash of swatting incidents hit the US over the last few months, a recent report connects dozens to one person running a swatting-for-hire service.
On Thursday, Motherboard reported that a Telegram channel is offering to swat specific targets for pay using computerized voices. The service is possibly behind at least dozens, if not hundreds, of swatting incidents across the US.
Swatting is when someone calls the police with a bogus threat of violence, prompting them to send armed officers to unsuspecting locations. The practice is difficult to investigate because perpetrators often spoof phone numbers and call outside local jurisdictions – sometimes from other countries. Law enforcement agencies have struggled with the issue for years.
At least two people have died in swatting incidents. In 2017, police in Kansas shot and killed 28-year-old Andrew Finch after a swatter called in a fake hostage situation at his address. In 2021, 60-year-old grandfather Mark Herring suffered a fatal heart attack when teenagers swatted him over his Twitter handle.
Last October, NPR claimed that within a span of 38 days, law enforcement responded to false threats at 182 schools in 28 states. Local media outlets nationwide have reported dozens of swatting incidents since then, with 20 fake school shooting calls occurring recently in Illinois alone.
Motherboard’s investigation traced dozens of these calls to a Telegram user named “Torswats,” who uses computerized voices during calls. Whether Torswats uses generative AI to impersonate humans or other voice synthesizer technology is unclear. However, the artificial voice responds to 911 operators’ questions in close to real-time. The technique comes amid recent reports of scams that use AI to impersonate the voice of a loved one asking for money.
Motherboard obtained 35 call recordings from the Telegram channel before Torswats deleted them. Although, it is estimated that there may have been up to 170. The calls targeted locations in Florida, Maryland, Virginia, Massachusetts, Texas, California, and other states.
The swatting service offers to lock down a school for $75. For an additional $50, it will make a call that causes the police to handcuff a victim and search their home. Torswats also offers deals for returning customers and negotiates prices for swatting celebrities, public figures, or Twitch streamers, the last being a common target.
This week, Torswats temporarily suspended service for “at least one month.” It is unclear if the closure is in response to Motherboard’s investigation or one coming from law enforcement.